Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 2, 2008

A Test Of Independence

Matthew Continetti writes:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, experience cannot be separated from judgment. Experience matters. It was a lifetime of service and involvement in national security issues that gave McCain the perspective and insight to urge a change in strategy as early as 2003. When it came to Iraq it was the old man, McCain, not the young, fresh, and cool Obama, who was flexible in judgment and willing to try a new approach. And Obama has been inflexible in his error. He continues to advocate a political timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and states that he still would have opposed the surge regardless of its clear success. But a precipitous and premature withdrawal would undermine all the gains made in the last year and a half, and a timeline would breathe new life into the enemies of a stable and democratic Iraq. Barack Obama not only lacks experience and judgment; he lacks the capacity to admit he made a mistake and is therefore willing to risk everything the surge has achieved. Obama got it wrong when the stakes were greatest, and on the central issue of our time. Why on earth would we choose to reward him for it?

The piece is a must-read and thought provoking on the entire subject of “conventional wisdom.” It is not just that McCain had experience — lots of people, including those who were pursuing the failed “light footprint” strategy, had that in spades. It is that he was open to fixing, rather than abandoning the war effort, in large part  because he was unmoved by public opinion clammoring to shut down the war altogether.

In short, McCain often seems like he doesn’t really give a darn what others think. At key junctures in his career he certainly has been almost impervious to public opinion and certainly to his party’s own electoral fortunes. Whether that comes from an irascible personality or his POW experience is for others to ponder. But it gives him the ability to swim upstream and ignore not just MSM opinion but even those in his own party who shuffle their feet and head for the hills when public opinion temporarily shifts against them.

Voters always say they want someone “independent” and that they don’t like politicians who blow with the winds of popular opinion. They say they don’t like politician who are yes-men for their party. But do they really? Do they appreciate  someone who disagrees with them? It’s an open question. But this election is as good a test as we’ve ever had for that inquiry. We have one candidate with apparently no fixed views and an infinite ability to blow with the political winds and another with terribly strong (albeit eccletic) positions who doesn’t much care whether public opinion is with him or not. We’ll see which the voters like best.

Matthew Continetti writes:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, experience cannot be separated from judgment. Experience matters. It was a lifetime of service and involvement in national security issues that gave McCain the perspective and insight to urge a change in strategy as early as 2003. When it came to Iraq it was the old man, McCain, not the young, fresh, and cool Obama, who was flexible in judgment and willing to try a new approach. And Obama has been inflexible in his error. He continues to advocate a political timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and states that he still would have opposed the surge regardless of its clear success. But a precipitous and premature withdrawal would undermine all the gains made in the last year and a half, and a timeline would breathe new life into the enemies of a stable and democratic Iraq. Barack Obama not only lacks experience and judgment; he lacks the capacity to admit he made a mistake and is therefore willing to risk everything the surge has achieved. Obama got it wrong when the stakes were greatest, and on the central issue of our time. Why on earth would we choose to reward him for it?

The piece is a must-read and thought provoking on the entire subject of “conventional wisdom.” It is not just that McCain had experience — lots of people, including those who were pursuing the failed “light footprint” strategy, had that in spades. It is that he was open to fixing, rather than abandoning the war effort, in large part  because he was unmoved by public opinion clammoring to shut down the war altogether.

In short, McCain often seems like he doesn’t really give a darn what others think. At key junctures in his career he certainly has been almost impervious to public opinion and certainly to his party’s own electoral fortunes. Whether that comes from an irascible personality or his POW experience is for others to ponder. But it gives him the ability to swim upstream and ignore not just MSM opinion but even those in his own party who shuffle their feet and head for the hills when public opinion temporarily shifts against them.

Voters always say they want someone “independent” and that they don’t like politicians who blow with the winds of popular opinion. They say they don’t like politician who are yes-men for their party. But do they really? Do they appreciate  someone who disagrees with them? It’s an open question. But this election is as good a test as we’ve ever had for that inquiry. We have one candidate with apparently no fixed views and an infinite ability to blow with the political winds and another with terribly strong (albeit eccletic) positions who doesn’t much care whether public opinion is with him or not. We’ll see which the voters like best.

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Where Do You Go From Here?

I’m sure the Democrats will blow a collective gasket over this latest John McCain ad . But really, aside from Moses, the images and rhetoric are straight out of Barack Obama’s mouth. The interesting thing about these humor pieces is that there is really no response other than: “Knock it off !”

Obama does say these ludicrous things and he can hardly grouse when it’s played back to him. (The Obama camp claims that they are “sad” about the ad. I suppose that’s better than the old favorite — “disappointed” — or the overused “outraged,”)

And let’s face it, it appears something is working. Whether it is the newly aggressive and pop culture-sensitive McCain ad approach, McCain’s energy message or the queasy sense that Obama’s overseas trip was overkill, McCain is in the hunt people are laughing at his opponent. Who would have thought?

I’m sure the Democrats will blow a collective gasket over this latest John McCain ad . But really, aside from Moses, the images and rhetoric are straight out of Barack Obama’s mouth. The interesting thing about these humor pieces is that there is really no response other than: “Knock it off !”

Obama does say these ludicrous things and he can hardly grouse when it’s played back to him. (The Obama camp claims that they are “sad” about the ad. I suppose that’s better than the old favorite — “disappointed” — or the overused “outraged,”)

And let’s face it, it appears something is working. Whether it is the newly aggressive and pop culture-sensitive McCain ad approach, McCain’s energy message or the queasy sense that Obama’s overseas trip was overkill, McCain is in the hunt people are laughing at his opponent. Who would have thought?

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“Globosclerosis”

David Brooks, in yesterday’s New York Times, explains why nothing is getting done in the world. He chalks it up to “globosclerosis.” Power has been dispersed among many nations, and the result is paralysis. “Everybody feels they have the right to say no, and in a multipolar world, many people have the power to do so,” he writes. “In a de-centered world, all it takes is a few well-placed parochial interests to bring a vast global process tumbling down.”

Brooks describes the malady well. Yet before we can repair the international system, we have to understand how we got into this fix. We can blame Russia and China for obstructionism–and we should–but we have to remember that we helped them grow strong, legitimized their role in the international system, and failed to speak clearly when they acted irresponsibly. At the end of the Cold War they were in no position to cause mischief. So we are largely responsible for letting them bedevil us now. We are only beginning to pay the price for one of history’s larger strategic mistakes.

And now that Moscow and Beijing are more powerful, we are especially reluctant to confront them. As we fail to do so, they become stronger and we become weaker. Hegemons fall quickly once it becomes evident they are unable to accomplish their objectives. Why? No nation wants to associate itself with a power on the way down. In recent weeks, the United States was not able to get Iran to reply to the West’s latest nuclear offer, failed to save the Doha Trade Round, and watched helplessly while the United Nations Security Council supported Sudan’s Bashir, who has been accused of genocide and war crimes. There is little now going right for the most powerful nation in history.

And what is the leader of the free world doing about this predicament? He is continuing his policy of honoring authoritarianism. Instead, he should be publicly telling Russian and Chinese leaders that either they support global norms or they should consider us their adversary. By undermining us, Moscow and Beijing are already making themselves our foes, so there’s nothing to lose by forcing them to declare where they stand.

If President Bush continues accommodationist policies, Brooks’s next column will not be on global sclerosis. He will be writing about the world in collapse.

David Brooks, in yesterday’s New York Times, explains why nothing is getting done in the world. He chalks it up to “globosclerosis.” Power has been dispersed among many nations, and the result is paralysis. “Everybody feels they have the right to say no, and in a multipolar world, many people have the power to do so,” he writes. “In a de-centered world, all it takes is a few well-placed parochial interests to bring a vast global process tumbling down.”

Brooks describes the malady well. Yet before we can repair the international system, we have to understand how we got into this fix. We can blame Russia and China for obstructionism–and we should–but we have to remember that we helped them grow strong, legitimized their role in the international system, and failed to speak clearly when they acted irresponsibly. At the end of the Cold War they were in no position to cause mischief. So we are largely responsible for letting them bedevil us now. We are only beginning to pay the price for one of history’s larger strategic mistakes.

And now that Moscow and Beijing are more powerful, we are especially reluctant to confront them. As we fail to do so, they become stronger and we become weaker. Hegemons fall quickly once it becomes evident they are unable to accomplish their objectives. Why? No nation wants to associate itself with a power on the way down. In recent weeks, the United States was not able to get Iran to reply to the West’s latest nuclear offer, failed to save the Doha Trade Round, and watched helplessly while the United Nations Security Council supported Sudan’s Bashir, who has been accused of genocide and war crimes. There is little now going right for the most powerful nation in history.

And what is the leader of the free world doing about this predicament? He is continuing his policy of honoring authoritarianism. Instead, he should be publicly telling Russian and Chinese leaders that either they support global norms or they should consider us their adversary. By undermining us, Moscow and Beijing are already making themselves our foes, so there’s nothing to lose by forcing them to declare where they stand.

If President Bush continues accommodationist policies, Brooks’s next column will not be on global sclerosis. He will be writing about the world in collapse.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Gotta love how the punditocracy brushes off those “low information voters.” The thing is, lots of voters (most maybe?) fit that bill and they don’t seem to like Barack Obama all that much. (And is someone who perceives Obama as an arrogant, inexperienced elitist a “low information” voter or “high EQ” voter?)

Give that reporter a prize for the temerity to ask a real question of The One. The stammering response suggests He doesn’t get very many.

Or maybe it’s all about energy. John McCain is getting his share of local good press on that issue. So maybe those polls are being moved by “enough information” voters.

If this is right, it is very good news. Obama wants to focus on Afghanistan but with a hot war brewing there does that just reinforce the need for an experienced commander-in-chief?

Not all Democrats want to go down with the “no drilling” ship. Especially not senators from Red states.

This could be the one bright spot in the dismal Senate landscape for the GOP.

In case you needed more evidence that Los Angeles  is doing its fair share in the decline of western civilization. Which reminds me– where is the Obama kids’ dog? They should never trust a politician to keep his word.

Did you every think “viral” and McCain would be in a paragraph that didn’t have to do with germs? (As an aside, a pretty good way to defuse the age issue is to appear funnier and more irreverent than The One Who Shall Not Laugh.)

Obama doubles down on the race card. This seems crazy — is this going to help with working class voters, women, ex-Hillary supporters, Hispanics and other groups he’ll need to bring into the fold? I have to agree with First Read: ” Let’s get something straight: Anytime race is THE topic du jour in the campaign, it’s a bad day for Obama. Period.”

Even the fan club is queasy.

Forget Gallup, this is the poll I’m following. (h/t Volokh Conspiracy)

George Will senses ” fatigue from too much of Obama’s eloquence, which is beginning to sound formulaic and perfunctory” and gives Obama advice: “Enough, already, with the we-are-who-we-have-been-waiting-for rhetorical cotton candy that elevates narcissism to a political philosophy.” But what if that’s all he’s got?

“You don’t say?” headline of the day: “Democrats Anxious For Obama To Widen Lead.”

Gotta love how the punditocracy brushes off those “low information voters.” The thing is, lots of voters (most maybe?) fit that bill and they don’t seem to like Barack Obama all that much. (And is someone who perceives Obama as an arrogant, inexperienced elitist a “low information” voter or “high EQ” voter?)

Give that reporter a prize for the temerity to ask a real question of The One. The stammering response suggests He doesn’t get very many.

Or maybe it’s all about energy. John McCain is getting his share of local good press on that issue. So maybe those polls are being moved by “enough information” voters.

If this is right, it is very good news. Obama wants to focus on Afghanistan but with a hot war brewing there does that just reinforce the need for an experienced commander-in-chief?

Not all Democrats want to go down with the “no drilling” ship. Especially not senators from Red states.

This could be the one bright spot in the dismal Senate landscape for the GOP.

In case you needed more evidence that Los Angeles  is doing its fair share in the decline of western civilization. Which reminds me– where is the Obama kids’ dog? They should never trust a politician to keep his word.

Did you every think “viral” and McCain would be in a paragraph that didn’t have to do with germs? (As an aside, a pretty good way to defuse the age issue is to appear funnier and more irreverent than The One Who Shall Not Laugh.)

Obama doubles down on the race card. This seems crazy — is this going to help with working class voters, women, ex-Hillary supporters, Hispanics and other groups he’ll need to bring into the fold? I have to agree with First Read: ” Let’s get something straight: Anytime race is THE topic du jour in the campaign, it’s a bad day for Obama. Period.”

Even the fan club is queasy.

Forget Gallup, this is the poll I’m following. (h/t Volokh Conspiracy)

George Will senses ” fatigue from too much of Obama’s eloquence, which is beginning to sound formulaic and perfunctory” and gives Obama advice: “Enough, already, with the we-are-who-we-have-been-waiting-for rhetorical cotton candy that elevates narcissism to a political philosophy.” But what if that’s all he’s got?

“You don’t say?” headline of the day: “Democrats Anxious For Obama To Widen Lead.”

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Not Happy

How’s Barack Obama’s latest flip-flip on offshore drilling playing with the base? Well, I took a look at the comments over at Huffington Post’s story on the switheroo. There was this, apparently from a former Hillary Clinton supporter:

What a surprise. And while the presumptuous nominee flops around like a fish on the bottom of a rowboat, his supporters are falling all over themselves making excuses for him. While you were all goo-goo eyed during the primaries, 18 million of us saw something very different. Yes, he will do or say anything to get elected – and the best is yet to come. Feeling used yet?

Then this, from someone who did not identify as either a Hillary or Obama voter:

Good thing he didn’t voice any of these new positions during the primaries or it would have been the end of his chances. For the expanded FISA bill with retroactive immunity, for “refining” his Iraq policy which now includes leaving 60 to 80,000 combat troops in Iraq under a different name, for individual gun rights and against the DC gun law, for the death penalty and now just as I predicted here a few months ago for coastal oil drilling.

And this, from someone who feels completely used:

Omigod. He’s Hillary. Maybe this is all about self-aggrandizement and greed. Maybe he’s worse than Hillary. Someone please remind me why everyone voted for a virtually unknown man with no record. Oh right. Transformation and inspiration. So far he’s helped transform the Constitution into a meaningless scrap of paper, and he now wants to inspire faith in letting industry despoil our country for a thimbleful of oil. I want a do-over.

Well, that is the obvious downside of switching on so many issues, and on high profile ones to boot. Your friends get upset, your opponents sneer and the rest fo the voters may not believe you. The drilling issue, more so than perhaps FISA, is especially dicey since Obama was so definitive (until he wasn’t), McCain pounded him for weeks, the polls showed Obama was badly out of step with public opinion and then following a week of horrid press (and at least some evidence of poll slippage) he changed positions. And with comments like “I have to accept things I don’t like,” Obama gives McCain the obvious retort that leaders lead (and change others’ minds) while followers “accept” what others are doing. Instead of the “vision thing” (Bush 41′s problem) it’s the leadership thing.

So two questions remain: Will the base rise up or have they put their collective intellectual integrity in a blind trust? And what’s the next flip-flop? As to the latter, I’m thinking it will be on his bevy of tax increases. (“In this weakened George Bush-John McCain economy I can see that tax cuts might further drag down the economy which is already the worst since the Great Depression so . . .”) Coupled with a conditions based withdrawal in Iraq, support for offshore drilling and FISA support, skepticism about late term abortions, and a newly enhanced respect for the Second Amendment we really could have a Bush third term. ( But only if you believe all the recent positions are going to stick and all the former ones and his voting record as the most liberal senator weren’t the “real” Obama.)

How’s Barack Obama’s latest flip-flip on offshore drilling playing with the base? Well, I took a look at the comments over at Huffington Post’s story on the switheroo. There was this, apparently from a former Hillary Clinton supporter:

What a surprise. And while the presumptuous nominee flops around like a fish on the bottom of a rowboat, his supporters are falling all over themselves making excuses for him. While you were all goo-goo eyed during the primaries, 18 million of us saw something very different. Yes, he will do or say anything to get elected – and the best is yet to come. Feeling used yet?

Then this, from someone who did not identify as either a Hillary or Obama voter:

Good thing he didn’t voice any of these new positions during the primaries or it would have been the end of his chances. For the expanded FISA bill with retroactive immunity, for “refining” his Iraq policy which now includes leaving 60 to 80,000 combat troops in Iraq under a different name, for individual gun rights and against the DC gun law, for the death penalty and now just as I predicted here a few months ago for coastal oil drilling.

And this, from someone who feels completely used:

Omigod. He’s Hillary. Maybe this is all about self-aggrandizement and greed. Maybe he’s worse than Hillary. Someone please remind me why everyone voted for a virtually unknown man with no record. Oh right. Transformation and inspiration. So far he’s helped transform the Constitution into a meaningless scrap of paper, and he now wants to inspire faith in letting industry despoil our country for a thimbleful of oil. I want a do-over.

Well, that is the obvious downside of switching on so many issues, and on high profile ones to boot. Your friends get upset, your opponents sneer and the rest fo the voters may not believe you. The drilling issue, more so than perhaps FISA, is especially dicey since Obama was so definitive (until he wasn’t), McCain pounded him for weeks, the polls showed Obama was badly out of step with public opinion and then following a week of horrid press (and at least some evidence of poll slippage) he changed positions. And with comments like “I have to accept things I don’t like,” Obama gives McCain the obvious retort that leaders lead (and change others’ minds) while followers “accept” what others are doing. Instead of the “vision thing” (Bush 41′s problem) it’s the leadership thing.

So two questions remain: Will the base rise up or have they put their collective intellectual integrity in a blind trust? And what’s the next flip-flop? As to the latter, I’m thinking it will be on his bevy of tax increases. (“In this weakened George Bush-John McCain economy I can see that tax cuts might further drag down the economy which is already the worst since the Great Depression so . . .”) Coupled with a conditions based withdrawal in Iraq, support for offshore drilling and FISA support, skepticism about late term abortions, and a newly enhanced respect for the Second Amendment we really could have a Bush third term. ( But only if you believe all the recent positions are going to stick and all the former ones and his voting record as the most liberal senator weren’t the “real” Obama.)

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Bookshelf

• So far as I know, no one has ever written a novel about an opera librettist (though I can recommend a witty and knowing novel about the backstage world of opera, Brown Meggs’ “Aria”). But two of my other professions, that of drama critic and biographer, have been the subject of comic novels that are both exceptionally readable—albeit in different ways.

The eponymous anti-hero of Wilfrid Sheed’s “Max Jamison,” published in 1970, is a notoriously crotchety drama critic for a weekly newsmagazine who awakes one day to find himself smack dab in the middle of an excruciating midlife crisis with spiritual overtones: “Closing the Times was the end of his religious observance for the day. He wished real religion wasn’t quite so damn impossible. There was a need for it that the Times didn’t really fill.” Comprehensively unhappy with every aspect of his life, Max resolves to brighten up his pitch-dark point of view by taking up with a much younger woman, a decision that leads with staggering promptness to frighteningly funny grief.

Part of what makes “Max Jamison” so readable is that Sheed is very, very shrewd about the New York literary racket. Needless to say, much has changed since 1970—among other things, the weekly newsmagazines no longer cover Broadway other than sporadically—but the big picture remains all too recognizable four decades later. Max himself is a most interesting figure, a semi-lapsed intellectual who used to write for the little magazines and now pontificates in the mass media (“He had sensed that in educated America, humor was the number 1 language, for criticism, passion, even cooking: and he set about learning it with grim intelligence”). Harold Ross was undoubtedly right as a rule when he said that “nobody gives a damn about a writer and his problems except another writer,” but “Max Jamison” is an exception, a portrait of a miserable writer that is at once sharp-edged and sympathetic.

• If it’s brainy slapstick you seek, I commend your attention to Mark Dunn’s “Ibid,” published in 2004. The conceit of the book is that Dunn himself has written a biography of one Jonathan Blashette, a turn-of-the-century circus freak (he was born with three legs) who invented underarm deodorant for men and later became a noted philanthropist. Then Dunn’s publisher accidentally destroys the typescript of his book—except for the footnotes. Hence “Ibid,” which consists of 253 pages of source notes for a biography that no longer exists. Some are gnomically short, others absurdly long, and all are written in a style best described as deadpan silliness:

17. She was trampled in the Wilmington nylon riot of 1940. Barbara Sadler, Nylon Riots: An Exhaustive History, Volume 3 (Chicago: Sartorial Press, 1953), 255-57. Hiram Diles’ wife, Cassia, recovered within a couple of weeks. Her sister Magda required surgery and two years of intensive psychological counseling.

Such inside foolery is not for everyone, but “Ibid” made me laugh out loud several times in a crowded airport departure lounge, which is a pretty high batting average for a comic novel.

• So far as I know, no one has ever written a novel about an opera librettist (though I can recommend a witty and knowing novel about the backstage world of opera, Brown Meggs’ “Aria”). But two of my other professions, that of drama critic and biographer, have been the subject of comic novels that are both exceptionally readable—albeit in different ways.

The eponymous anti-hero of Wilfrid Sheed’s “Max Jamison,” published in 1970, is a notoriously crotchety drama critic for a weekly newsmagazine who awakes one day to find himself smack dab in the middle of an excruciating midlife crisis with spiritual overtones: “Closing the Times was the end of his religious observance for the day. He wished real religion wasn’t quite so damn impossible. There was a need for it that the Times didn’t really fill.” Comprehensively unhappy with every aspect of his life, Max resolves to brighten up his pitch-dark point of view by taking up with a much younger woman, a decision that leads with staggering promptness to frighteningly funny grief.

Part of what makes “Max Jamison” so readable is that Sheed is very, very shrewd about the New York literary racket. Needless to say, much has changed since 1970—among other things, the weekly newsmagazines no longer cover Broadway other than sporadically—but the big picture remains all too recognizable four decades later. Max himself is a most interesting figure, a semi-lapsed intellectual who used to write for the little magazines and now pontificates in the mass media (“He had sensed that in educated America, humor was the number 1 language, for criticism, passion, even cooking: and he set about learning it with grim intelligence”). Harold Ross was undoubtedly right as a rule when he said that “nobody gives a damn about a writer and his problems except another writer,” but “Max Jamison” is an exception, a portrait of a miserable writer that is at once sharp-edged and sympathetic.

• If it’s brainy slapstick you seek, I commend your attention to Mark Dunn’s “Ibid,” published in 2004. The conceit of the book is that Dunn himself has written a biography of one Jonathan Blashette, a turn-of-the-century circus freak (he was born with three legs) who invented underarm deodorant for men and later became a noted philanthropist. Then Dunn’s publisher accidentally destroys the typescript of his book—except for the footnotes. Hence “Ibid,” which consists of 253 pages of source notes for a biography that no longer exists. Some are gnomically short, others absurdly long, and all are written in a style best described as deadpan silliness:

17. She was trampled in the Wilmington nylon riot of 1940. Barbara Sadler, Nylon Riots: An Exhaustive History, Volume 3 (Chicago: Sartorial Press, 1953), 255-57. Hiram Diles’ wife, Cassia, recovered within a couple of weeks. Her sister Magda required surgery and two years of intensive psychological counseling.

Such inside foolery is not for everyone, but “Ibid” made me laugh out loud several times in a crowded airport departure lounge, which is a pretty high batting average for a comic novel.

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